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Combat Flow

I have been playing a lot of WoW the past week or so. While the original goal was to grind some reputation to unlock Allied Races, I am now focusing my time on getting my stable of alts up to level 110 prior to BfA going Live. And in that time, I am finding it fascinating how great (or horrible!) combat feels for the different classes.

My “main” in Legion has been a druid Moonkin. The thought process was A) I wanted to DPS, and B) my historical knowledge of Feral was that you basically had to play Dance Dance Revolution perfectly to only achieve adequate DPS. Thus, for pretty much the entire expansion, I stayed Moonkin. That is in spite of Moonkins feeling terrible to play.

I say Moonkins feel terrible, but it’s difficult to enunciate why. There just doesn’t seem to be any particular flow. Let’s say that I’m facing a fresh target 30 yards away. I can start with a New Moon rotation, which is a 3-spell sequence of escalating damage and cast times. The target is likely to die by the time they get hit with the third spell, and I’ll have enough Astral Power to fire off at least two Starsurges (instant-cast, hard-hitting spells) to finish off anything that survives. Then the clunkiness comes in. While the New Moon rotation is on cooldown, I pretty much just spam Solar Wrath until I can Starsurge again, or I toss on two dots and hope for instant-cast Lunar Strike procs from being hit.

One of the alts I’m leveling is a Demo warlock, so let’s compare there. Starting at 30 yards, I cast Summon: Dreadstalkers, followed by two Shadowbolts, then Hand of Gul’dan. At this point, the mob is either dead or about to be dead from the force of like 6-8 demons auto-attacking. When the Dreadstalkers go away, I get two Demonbolt instant-cast procs, which are mini-Pyroblasts that also give me Soul Shards to recast Summon: Dreadstalker and/or Hand of Gul’dan.

There is a flow with the Demo warlock that practically turns into a roiling boil if you immediately engage another enemy. Compare that to the Moonkin, with it’s anemic refractory period inbetween possibly blowing one mob up.

Another flow impediment is just a clunky rotation. Exhibit A: the Unholy Death Knight. Festering Strike costs 2 runes, and gives your target some Festering Wounds. If you hit them twice, they’ll have four debuffs, and you can spend your two remaining runes on Scourge Strike to pop two of them. And now… you wait for runes to regenerate, or possibly throw out a Death Coil. Alternatively, you can only Festering Strike once, and then Scourge Strike four times, the latter two of which won’t deal extra damage. If there’s a 2nd mob, you just sort of face-tank them for a while. I mean, you have AoE options like Outbreak or Death & Decay/Defile, but those consume runes too, and you’re left with awkward gaps in the rotation regardless.

Retribution paladin used to be the king of awkward rotation gaps, but I have been enjoying it since the 8.0 patch thus far. Judgment, Blade of Justice, Templar’s Verdict is sometimes enough to kill a mob outright. If not, Crusader’s Strike and another Blade of Justice (via Art of War proc) will get you another 3 Holy Power for another Templar’s Verdict. If the mob still ain’t dead, or if something else wandered into range, Wake of Ashes hits hard and instantly gives you 5 Holy Power for some additional Templar’s Verdicts. Point being, there may be some gaps later on, but they only show up after prolonged combat.

Sometimes the rotation is fine, but there is something else that is ever-so-slightly grating about the class, which interrupts the flow. That has been my experience with Havoc (aka DPS) demon hunters. Nominally, the spec feels fine. In fact, it is extremely satisfying when you gather up mobs and watch them literally melt from Eye Beam every 30 seconds. The problem is… the sounds. The auto-attack and Demon’s Bite and Chaos Strike abilities make a discordant “ching-ching” sound, like metal on metal. It’s annoying as shit, and just about enough to get me to not want to play the class entirely, despite loving everything else about the kit. I might seriously investigate if there’s an addon or something that can change the sounds that those abilities make.

Of all the alts I’ve played thus far, the one that was the most surprisingly satisfying to play has been the Fury warrior. As far as I can tell, the spec is not even that particularly strong. But, guys, seriously, give it a go sometime. Charging your foe, hitting with Raging Blow/Blood Thirst/repeat, then launching into that amazing Rampage animation… glorious. Left, right, both swords. If you’re not careful, there can be a 1-2 second boner-killing gap in buttons to press within the rotation, but it’s otherwise a very good time. The sounds, the animation, the damage, the flow – the whole package.

Having said all that, it’s entirely possibly I have been doing things wrong. Talents play a huge part in rotations and spec feel, and I may have simply picked the wrong ones. For example, I’m looking at Icy Veins right now, and it’s saying that the New Moon talent for Moonkins is crap, which probably has a lot to do with how weak/clunky the spec feels. I’m not sure that spamming Solar Wrath or casting DoTs on mobs that should ideally die within 10-15 seconds will feel better, but maybe. The rest of my alts are all sub-110 also, so it’s possible that mobs scaled below max level are weaker than my druid main is used to fighting. As I bring each one to the level cap – almost entirely from doing Legion invasions once every few days – we’ll see how they feel.

It has been an interesting experience playing all these classes/specs nonetheless. A lot of people have kinda railed against the notion of making leveling new classes a trivial exercise, between heirlooms and XP streamlining and other nerfs. But I feel like it’s a great tragedy for new players of WoW to be coming in and possibly losing on the character creation screen. Or if not outright losing by sticking with a clunky spec/class, missing out on a class/spec that they would enjoy playing 1000% better than whatever they originally picked. This isn’t FF14 where you lose nothing in particular by switching classes. I’m stuck with the druid main at least until BfA – unless I’m willing to forever abandon unlocking the Allied Races – because I sure as shit ain’t grinding up the reputation again.

In any case, it’s my goal to get a stable full of max-level alts ready for the BfA release. And, you know, hopefully find the one that’s the most fun to play.

Action Gameplay

I’m still making my way through Nier, and it’s an interesting experience to analyze in situ.

Aside from the moments when it turns into a bullet-hell shoot-them-up, Nier is an action game in the vein of Devil May Cry. You have a Light attack, a Heavy attack, a Ranged attack, and a special skill. There are technically combos, I think, but I’m not sure it’s especially more productive than just mashing buttons. The only real “decision” is when to press the Dodge button. Which, by the way, can be spammed with no penalty to essentially gain infinite invincibility frames.

The end result is a relatively simplistic combat system. And it’s… still fun? I guess.

One of the common complaints regarding older MMOs like WoW is that tab-targeting combat is boring. Or mindless. 111211131141. While Nier is certainly more active from a combat perspective, I’m not sure that it is less mindless. XXXYYYXXY with some RT in there (on a controller) to dodge. If I just stood there and didn’t dodge in Nier, sure, the enemies I’m fighting might be able to kill me; conversely, most enemies in WoW can be face-tanked. But does that really matter?

The whole situation kind of reminds me of the difference between driving to the movie theater and watching the movie. The action of driving somewhere is much more involved than watching the screen – there are thousands of more individual choices and reactions necessary to drive somewhere safely. But is it more engaging? At the end of the night, which do you remember more?

And really, this is a problem with Action games even in the absence of thousands of incidental enemies you have to mow down. Furi features action combat that focuses just on bosses. I played it for a few hours, got to the second boss, and ended up setting the game down. It’s just not particularly compelling. Sure, it feels good to be able to perform the button presses necessary to avoid death. That’s a sense of personal progression.

But… I don’t know. Just like with driving, I kind of zone out the experience when I’m killing enemies in Action games. Or rather, become so hyper-focused on the moment-to-moment reactions to stimuli that I lose the overall plot. Once I get to my destination safely, the process by which I got there exits my short-term memory and becomes no more than a fuzzy recollection of time spent.

Perhaps this is less an indictment of Action combat generally, and more a specific Nier issue. Perhaps I should crank up the Difficulty slider up a notch. But I’m not sure that that would accomplish anything more than slippery road conditions would “improve” the driving experience. Common enemies would require greater focus, and yet the “reward” would be the same.

Maybe that’s just it: action combat is typically less overtly rewarding. Nier enemies drop currency and occasionally crafting mats, but it’s not on the same scale as a WoW mob. There are simply more and multi-faceted reward types in RPG-esque games than Action ones. Action games focus on the action, and generally try to reduce downtime. Go too far, and you end up the Borderlands Zone where you have to take a 5-second break after each gun drop to compare it to your equipped arsenal. That sort of thing completely breaks the flow in a way that, say, Skyrim does not.

I dunno. I’m not even through my first playthrough of Nier – New Game+ is apparently mandatory to see the rest of the plot – and I think that I had better buckle down and ignore sidequests from here on out. If I don’t, I think there is a serious chance that the combat becomes too boring to finish.

[Fake Edit]: Completed both A & B endings this weekend. Combat got more boring in B, which I didn’t think was possible. Let’s just hope C+ is a bit better…

[FFXIV] The Long Road

Implausibly, I continue to pay for a FFXIV subscription.

In the last week or so, I have made some progress both in the story and in the Job system, hitting level 35. It is slow going though, as I do not consider the game anywhere near the top of my evening entertainment preferences. I will typically play for about an hour or two, run into so kind of roadblock, and then log off and play something else.

The roadblocks are generally the pointlessly forced dungeons – I seriously had to run a dungeon because the Main Story Quest called for cheese, literal cheese – but I am also running into level breakpoints too. My understanding was that XP was sped up so that the sidequests were no longer necessary to complete. That seemed to be true under level 30, but since then, I have consistently been between 50%-60% of a full level behind.

So, yeah, do those sidequests.

Story-wise, I have certainly hit that stage at which the plot supposedly picks up. And it certainly has, comparatively. I do find that the greater focus on Empire soldiers is more able to keep my attention. Traditional fantasy is not especially interesting to me, except when it tends towards more grimdark themes or “realism.” Fantasy + Magi-Tek shenanigans though, have been interesting to me since I first booted up FF6 in my SNES.

Gameplay-wise, not much has changed. My Archer is now a Bard, and that means… more damage cooldowns. I do actually enjoy having group buffs, as it reminds me of the old WoW paladin days. Beyond that, combat is formulaic, boring, and completed in a daze-like trance 100% of the time. It’s still worlds better than my experience as Monk, but I think most of that is because melee in FFXIV feels terrible. And that is probably mostly to do with the high-pitched squeals and screen-flashes that constitute FFXIV attacks. Nothing feels particularly weighty or anchored to the world.

While the sale has since closed, Amazon and a few other places had the Stormblood expansion on sale for $25. I was tempted to purchase it for all of two seconds. The very real problem is that I am ages away from even getting to the end of the ARR storyline, let alone getting to the required Heavensward stuff (which is thankfully included in Stormblood). There is no guarantee that I make it to level 50 at my current pace, so it seems a bit silly to be buying expansions. At the same time, not buying the expansion sort of depresses my desire to hit the end of the road, as that would mean either taking a break until the next sale or giving up.

Oh, well. I shall continue as time and interest permits.

Missed Effect

Mass Effect: Andromeda was finished over the weekend.

My overall impression? Serviceable. Adequate. My /played time was about 90 hours, so it is a tad difficult to ascertain whether the characters blossomed by the mid-game or if it was a sort of Stockholm Syndrome effect. Well, I can say for sure that I immensely enjoyed Peebee and Drack’s company. Vetra too, perhaps, but she’s no Garrus. Cora can take a hike.

The combat and general environments are easily the best the series has offered. I played the entire game on Hard, which was appropriately named. It has been mentioned before, but a lot has been done to incorporate waist-high barriers into the environment in a logical manner. In fact, a sizable portion of the game have none. Which is real shame given how many enemies have beam laser effects, which effectively melt you outside of cover. Still, Hard is Hard, so it was a welcome challenge (most of the time).

The environments and the Frostbite engine in general were exquisite. I got a little tired of the theme planet trope (Desert planet! Ice planet!), but the terrain overall was varied and the organic vistas were amazing. Indeed, I can see now why such a big deal was made regarding wonky character animations given how outrageously polished the rest of the game looks – it seems so out of place.

What also felt out of place were the poorly-implemented mechanical aspects of the game. Fighting feels great. Switching abilities mid-battle feels less great. Downtime inventory management feels awful. Scanning things give you Research Points, which you then use to buy weapon blueprints, which then take resources collected from driving around to craft, which then take Augments and/or Mods you receive from fighting to improve. I’m sure it sounds like a reasonable way to tie all the player experiences together, at least on a whiteboard. In practice, you end up wasting tons of Research Points because every single gun is available from the start and you don’t know how it feels to shoot till you get one in your hands. By the mid-game though, you’ll have needed to pour all your points into upgrading a specific type of gun (e.g. Black Window) through its various iterations (e.g. III, IV, V, etc) to maintain combat effectiveness. So… either settle on something early, making the multiple pages of menus irrelevant, or try all the things and always wonder whether a specific gun sucks, or if it would have been good at max rank.

I played a little bit of the Andromeda multiplayer, and it was… basically ME3’s multiplayer. ME3’s multiplayer was a hidden gem and significantly extended my playtime of the game well beyond the (original) poor ending. That may have been a time and a place thing though, as I had basically zero drive to continue playing Andromeda’s multiplayer, despite an objectively more refined combat system. For the uninitiated, it is a 4-player Horde game mode where one caps out at level 20, but items/weapons/character options are gated behind lockboxes. Open a Black Widow sniper rifle? Now you can take it with any character. Unlock a second one, and now you have a Black Widow Mk 2 with slightly higher stats. And so on.

So far, most of this has been high praise, so you might be wondering why the game is “serviceable” and “adequate.” It’s relatively simple: Andromeda is not better overall than any of the prior trilogy. Graphics and combat? Better. Characters, plot, themes, cohesive narratives, emotional gravity, witty one-liners? Not better. I find it extraordinarily silly to judge Andromeda “on its own merits” considering it has Mass Effect in the title. Andromeda is better than a whole lot of other single-player RPGs, yes, but better Mass Effects (overall, mind you) exist. If you had to make an exclusive choice between all the titles, I’d recommend one of those other ones instead.

And perhaps that is part of the reason why Andromeda may be the last in the series. At first, I was a bit sad, but it kinda feels like the right move now. The Mass Effect name has a lot of baggage attached and, outside of the various character races, there wasn’t exactly a whole lot tying Andromeda to it. Yes, all these people are from the Milky Way, there are various Easter Eggs and such pointing to Reapers and Shepard, and so on. But there didn’t have to be. The fact that it was tied to the franchise just made the world-building easier – no need to explain five humanoid races tooling around with each other relatively peacefully. Andromeda could have been the story of five human nations from Earth and little would have changed, narratively. Hell, the eponymous “mass effect” was uttered like twice in the whole game, always in reference to shields. Eezo sickness could have been any other miraculous plot disease.

Ultimately… I dunno. Andromeda is certainly better than any random given RPG out there. Andromeda is not better than any given Mass Effect title. It is worth experiencing, but it is not essential to experience right now. Perhaps in another couple of years when we finally get some more concrete idea as to whether Bioware is closing the Mass Effect door for good.

Impressions: Black Desert Online

How ’bout that character generator, eh?

Rawr

I remember the hubbub from back before the US release, where the character generator was a sort of standalone piece of software. It is still quite impressive, all this time later, even if most of the options end up turning your character into nightmare fuel more often than not. Still, for those that care about proper placement of their character’s dimples, I am sure that this sort of refinement is welcome.

What the character generator did not prepare me for is the rest of the game looking… washed out?

Ironically, it looks fine in screenshots.

To be clear, the game does not look bad. There is just a weird sort of dissonance between having an avatar constructed in incredibly minute detail… traversing a landscape with shrubbery that has a lesser polygon count than their eyebrows. The two simply feel out of place right away. As I was running around, all I could think about is whether or not Guild Wars 2 looked better.

Combat has been one-shot city thus far, and I think I’m technically level 17 at this point. It is certainly an interesting Action combat system, as it plays more like, well, Action RPGs. Hold Left-Click to perform a series of attacks, Right-Click starts another, LMB + RMB is something else, W + F is another attack, etc, etc etc. Technically there is also a hotbar you can utilize, but the in-game prompts warn you that it costs more resources (MP) to perform when not manually keying in the combo. Given that nothing has survived more than two hits of “hold down LMB,” I have not yet seen whether that’s relevant.

In fairness, the class I chose was Dark Knight. Which was selected based on the little video that play of the various classes and my research into what was Flavor of the Month. So maybe the class is just OP. Wizard/Witch were #1 and #2 in the FOTM ranking, but the experience of FFXIV’s abysmal Arcanist experience has soured ranged classes in new (to me) MMOs. Despite that, it was actually the Ranger that piqued my interest the most originally. Perhaps I’ll check that out later.

Say what?

One factor that is going to limit my playtime right away is the garbage localization and questing. Quests are quests, but Black Desert has discovered a way to make them even less interesting. For most NPCs, you have to click on a Quest tab in a menu to bring up their quest, then they have two poorly-translated lines per screen to convey the information, and while they are “talking” they spout off their idle dialog that has nothing to do with the words on the screen. I suppose I shouldn’t expect much more from a game with an “auto-run to quest objective” feature built-in, but it’s a bit disappointing nonetheless.

I have not spent much time with the remaining game systems, including Node management and leaving the game running overnight/during work so you can AFK gain millions of silver for reasons. From what I understand, this absurd economy is mainly based around the principle that you’ll be throwing tens of millions of silver away in the gamble that is upgrading endgame gear. As in, to upgrade a 20 million silver sword to the next level, you have smash it together with another 20 million silver sword. Success means you get an upgraded 100 million silver sword. Failure means you get a silver sword one enchantment level less; not only have you lost the 20 million silver item, but you’ll have to buy more swords to smash together just to get back to where you were originally. Accessory enchanting works the same way, except that on a failure you lose both items.

Under that sort of insane rubric, being able to make millions while AFK fishing is OK.

…wait, no it isn’t. It’s still fucking nonsense, but whatever.

Doom Averted (?)

About two weeks ago, I warned that the financial numbers weren’t looking too hot for Wildstar. Today’s news is that Wildstar is going Free-to-Play. This Fall. Which I’m assuming means that NCSoft is going to give Carbine a chance to bail the submerged vessel out a bit longer before pulling the plug, to mix metaphors.

I would say I am not particularly optimistic that Wildstar will get a second life from the F2P transition, but now that I think about it, MMOs shutting down is more rare than you think. TERA is still around. People are still playing RIFT. Hell, you can go download Age of Conan off of Steam right now, and when was the last time you even heard of that game? The City of Heroes episode sort of underlines NCSoft’s view on profitability, but the status quo seems to heavily lean towards zombie MMOs.

As for me, I shan’t be returning to Nexus. I have read about the inroads the devs (those who remain anyway) have made in terms of smoothing out the hardcore cupcake edges, and that’s great. Unfortunately, I had a much more fundamental problem with the game, as described a year ago:

And that’s when I realized that I don’t really like my Medic. Not just healing, which is a total clusterfuck, but… all of it. I enjoy the concept of the class, and even the sort of niche it occupies as an AoE healer. But guys, there is a profound sense of deadening when you realize how utterly shallow the combat system is. I get why Carbine did things this way – the only way the bullet-hell gameplay works is by reducing everything down to 5 buttons – but it puts enormous pressure on those few abilities to be fun to press. This isn’t like WoW where you can go Arcane or Frost if you dislike the Fire rotation. Every (DPS) class is basically a Ret paladin. Enjoy.

There are a lot of things you can dislike about an MMO and still play anyway. You know, raiding instead of PvP, or vice versa. When you don’t like pushing the buttons though… well, you’re going to be doing that quite a bit. Or not, in my case.

Good luck, Wildstar. Something tells me you’re going to need it.